Arts and Culture

Sacraments of Hope

First in a series

FORTUNATELY FOR ME, every so often I come across an essay in a Catholic periodical, often America or Commonweal, that provides me with some challenging insights into some Christian mystery. I am so moved by the essay that I wish to share the insights with others. The most recent marvelous essay that both instructed me and inspired me was Paul J. Wadell’s “Not Settling for Less: The Audacity and Practice of Christian Hope” in the Nov. 21, 2016 issue of America.

About 40 years ago, I wrote a book about hope. What I tried to do in a book Waddell did better in a four-page essay. There is so much insight and wisdom in ”Not Settling for Less” that I have decided to devote the next meeting of a discussion group I moderate to discussing his essay.

Early in his essay Waddell mentions that worldwide images of suffering and death, of various tragedies and calamities may make it difficult for us to hope. However, he then writes the following:

“These can threaten hope. But perhaps what threatens hope even more today are not these tragedies and calamities but the soft and subtle despair we settle into when we slip into ways of living that rob us of the exalted good God wants for us. The problem is not that we hope for too much, but that we have learned to settle for so little. We have caused the horizons of hope to shrink. We have lost sight of hope’s transcendent dimension because we have forgotten the incomparable promise to which hope always beckons.” (p. 20)

Wadell’s insight that there is a serious danger that we hope not for too much, but for too little, is important and should move us to be awestruck when we place our hope in God. We hope for salvation, for an eternity with God. This is God’s desire, God’s plan for each of us. But our hope for an eternity with God should color the way we live prior to entering heaven.

If we live placing our hope in God’s love for us, then we achieve a new freedom. Our hope reminds us how precious we are to God, how special we are in God’s plan. Rather than leading us to try to escape our historical situation, hope calls us to enter more deeply into it.

If we believe we have been bought at a great price, namely the death and resurrection of Jesus, then we should be able, at least to some extent, to pass beyond our selfishness and petty self-preoccupation and embrace more freely our vocation to love God and neighbor. Pope Benedict’s words in his encyclical on hope will describe us: “The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.”

I think one activity that might distract us from God’s love for us and providential presence in our lives is to place our hope in finite realities such as money, power, a career or any reality that is less than God. Anyone who reads this column regularly knows of my interest in films. Years ago in an interview, author/director Woody Allen noted that even if he created a film that was a masterpiece, the film would not provide salvation. Because the masterpiece would not save him, he said that he had to wonder why he continues to make films. Though Allen claims he is an atheist, he sees clearly that nothing less than God could provide salvation.

The Christian community should be a community of hope. I don’t hope in God as an isolated individual but as a member of God’s people, a pilgrim people moving toward the fullness of God’s kingdom, which we call heaven. We can be signs of hope for one another.

Recently, I had a wonderful experience with students at St. John’s University. As an assignment in an introduction to philosophy course, I had students engage in eight hours of service and write an essay linking the experience to what we were discussing in class about human finitude, neediness and vulnerability. The students could serve in a nursing home, soup kitchen, hospital, school or parish – almost any place where they could serve others. No special knowledge or skill was required. All that was needed was human compassion and a desire to serve.

In reading their essays, I was taught by my students. Their love for those they were serving was inspiring. For me, the students became symbols of hope, signs of hope, sacraments of hope.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).